Ray Camillo – Founder & CEO, Blue Orbit Restaurant Consulting
Did you know that an empty seat can cost you between $.45 – $1.50 for every minute it remains open? Incorporating a restaurant optimization program allows a restaurant to create a system that will streamline service operations with measurable financial results. Over 75% of service issues are caused by an inefficiently run front desk. Double-seating a server, incorrect assessments of table turn times, waitlist criteria and mismanagement of seating the dining room (to name a few) create a domino effect that infiltrates the restaurant throughout the shift. By understanding the analytics of guest counts, table turn times, running an efficient waitlist, and integration of the front desk, a restaurant can have an effect on both the bottom line AND the guests’ experience. Most restaurant professionals recognize that the front desk is their guests’ first impression of their restaurant. Many full-service restaurants use seating and reservation software like Open Table, DineTime or NexTable to help manage the front desk functions. Every good VP of operations, owner, or general manager is motivated to maximize sales volume. If ever there was a throttle for sales volume it is the front desk, yet so many operations turn over their front desk functions to staff members who are not properly trained to keep the seats warm.
Slow or simply “steady” restaurants don’t have much of a problem except that they wish they were busier. Until they crack the code to address why they are not busy (poor food quality, poor location, saturated market, brand mismatch, self-inflicted food safety issues, etc.) the process is pretty straight forward. Simply seat guests with servers in rotation so the server has the capacity to properly manage the experience and deliver the intended service sequence. Double-seating should be avoided when possible, which is accomplished by carving up station charts so the best tables are spread among your best servers (vs. concentrated into one section) to minimize the possibility that the guest will reject the table choice and keep guests happy. Easy. It’s when restaurants are busy that money gets left on the table… and it happens when: host roles are not clearly defined, the wait isn’t quoted properly, the ratio of reservations to waitlist is lopsided, and table status isn’t kept up in real time.
- Poorly Defined Roles: Unless a restaurant is very slow where servers and managers share greeting and seating responsibilities on a first-come-first-serve basis, there must be one person in control of orchestrating seating function. The common roles at a restaurant’s front desk are: greeter, controller and seater where the seater function can be bolstered or shared with servers and managers. The greeter’s job is to provide the warm welcome and the restaurant’s friendly face. They communicate with the guest and answer questions, providing wait information, taking down phone numbers, issuing pagers (slowly going away and yielding to text messages) and otherwise queuing the guest up to be cared for by a seater. The controller’s job is to feed the “tables available” system with data regarding the status of every table (whether software driven or a grease pencil floor chart). After all, tables and seats generate all of the money so it follows that their status should be monitored constantly. The controller uses this information to determine the wait time (which is a calculation based on number of tables waiting vs. number of tables coming available). The most important element of the controller’s job to stay focused on the wait, reservations plotting, and dispatching seaters. They also communicate with management regarding seating miscalculations and front desk needs. The seater’s job is to care for the guest while graciously escorting them to the table. Without these roles defined, the front desk becomes chaotic, guests become frustrated, servers get overwhelmed and the restaurant loses revenue.
- Misquoting the Wait: Guests can become agitated when the clock ticks near or beyond the quoted time so getting it right is good for business. Many restaurants fail to properly train their hosts to quote a wait accurately, relying on timers imbedded in their software or on the host’s intuition. They hire brand-enhancing twenty-somethings, in college or on break from college, to park at the door and control the flow but – left to the pressures of juggling tables and maximizing seats – the first place they break is when quoting the wait. Busy restaurants are the first to ignore the potential revenue loss because there is perhaps a line at the door and the restaurant is busy, with a few tables open. The manager or owner assumes that these tables are in rotation and they grant their seemingly high-performing host team a wide berth to sort it out. They’re often just thrilled that their staff has it “under control” so they leave them alone, believing that anything else will hurt the restaurant, but in fact the hosts are often just in survival mode. Operators and staff often have canned views about volume times like, “we start to die down at 8:30” or “the line gets shorter by 9:00” – not believing that they have any ability to extend the busy time. What they don’t realize is that the embattled host uses a high quoted wait time to back the guest off, to dissuade them from leaving their name, or to scare them to go somewhere else. It’s survival. How many times have you gone out to eat at 7:45 on a Friday night to be told by a host that it’ll be a 90-minute wait, but 45 minutes later your phone buzzes with a text saying, “you’re tableis ready”? At face-value you’re thrilled that you didn’t have to wait 90 minutes but it’s truly a red flag for a restaurant that is poorly managed (what else is mismanaged if that’s the case?). How many people will agree to wait 90 minutes? I usually do because I know what the host is likely doing. They don’t know what the wait is and they are quoting something outrageously high to get me to go away. The solution? Be sure you have enough staff running the door – my rule of thumb is one host per every 75 seats, with managers and servers on the ready to help seat as needed. When the host team has the capacity to properly calculate the wait, they scare fewer customers away, the restaurant “dies down” later, the line stays long longer.
- Reservations vs. Wait List Imbalance: Restaurants that use reservation software often don’tproperly set reservation times in the system. Most restaurants that take reservations allow some seating “off the door” or “on the wait,” whereby guests can come in without a reservation and either be seated right away, wait on a list for a cancellation or next in line. This is a good practice, but most restaurants either take too many reservations or allow too many walk-ins. Getting the blend right is important. If your restaurant is in a location that is difficult to get to or park near, you want to give as much of a guarantee as possible, so you might allow 80% of your restaurant to be filled via reservations. If you’re in the suburbs or you have a lot of competition around you, it might be advantageous to take advantage of a steady stream of walk in customers to fill your restaurant. Balancing it correctly is a function of making sure every table is full during peak times. Empty tables at 7 pm, for instance, suggests that too many tables are blocked for reservations while empty tables at early and late seatings (say 5:30 pm and 8:30 pm) suggest that you’re not taking advantage of the reservation system to motivate guests who need a guaranteed table to come earlier or later.
- Failure to Track Guest Dine Time: Seats should be practically warm when tables are reset and ready for reuse. Like hotel beds, tables don’t make money when they’re empty. This includes when they’re dirty. Waiting for a guest to pay their check and go does not provide enough preparation because there is a lag between discovering that the table needs to be cleaned and the activity of getting it ready to be reseated. When it is clean, the host that is controlling the traffic needs to discover that the table is ready to be seated. This is easy to do in a tiny restaurant, but tough in a big restaurant with alcoves and corners. A great function for a manager or one of the host team members is to patrol the dining room to update the next available table. We use a simple table number list on a rigid pad that the host can easily carry in their pocket or under menus as they escort guests to their tables. Upon returning to the front desk, they log table status of every table on their path back to the front desk – noting if it is on desserts, has a check down, is empty but not reset, or is reset and ready to go. We circle the table number if it’s ready to be seated. A square means “empty but dirty”, a triangle means “check down” and a dot below it means “they’re on dessert”. This information comes in a steady stream from seaters to the controller, constantly refreshing table status and keeping the line moving. If the little pad of paper sounds old fashioned, it is but it works if you don’t have NexTable or another smartphone software system that allows bussers or hosts to remotely update table status. The important thing is to incorporate some method. Ignoring it because you don’t have the software is silly.
As is often said of sports teams, the best offense is a good defense. When a guest arrives at a busy restaurant, they can take on a bread-line mentality, elbowing their way to the front to impose their will (think Abe Froman, the Sausage King of Chicago) or strategically positioning themselves to make sure they don’t lose their place in line. Maximizing sales volume begins with making sure that the host staff is able to put the guest at ease while shifting the balance of control in favor of the host team. When front desk functions are parsed into focused job duties, when the wait is quoted correctly and when reservations are ready when promised, the restaurant is on its way to maximizing profit. Just because a restaurant is busy doesn’t mean it does it right. Indeed, I’d argue that most busy restaurants are not maximizing their seating system and are not optimized for profit.